Jerzy Gurawski (born 1935) – Polish space designer, architect and stage designer, lecturer. Graduate of the Faculty of Architecture of the Kraków University of Technology (diploma work on experimental theatre). He continues his fascination with theatre since his studies. For the Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows of Jerzy Grotowski and Ludwik Flaszen, he designed constellations of theatre space for the performances including Siakuntala (1960), Forefathers’ Eve by Adam Mickiewicz (1961), Akropolis by Stanisław Wyspiański (1962), The Constant Prince by Juliusz Słowacki (1965). Laureate of numerous prizes in that field, including the gold medal for research in the field of scenography (PQ 1971) and the Grand Cross of the Order of Rebirth of Poland for his work in the field of stage design (1991). In 1989, he opened his own architectural studio. Participant and laureate of numerous architecture contests and exhibitions. Since 1961, member and long-term juror of contests of the Association of Polish Architects (SARP). Laureate of Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals of SARP (1991) and the Honorary SARP Award (2007). Since 1972, member of OISTAT – the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians.
The end of the 1950s is the time of my youth. I was hostile towards stage design. All just baloney! I considered all forms of ornamentation devoid of sense. Space should be austere, simple. And this rule should also apply to costumes. I did my degree when there was no TV, none of those “tautological” gadgets, and the sole living matter for discussion was theatre: talking about it, about stage design, acting.
At that time, theatre in Kraków was magnificent. People like Krystyna Skuszanka, Konrad Swinarski and others, as well as the Teatr Rapsodyczny, where Karol Wojtyła (since 1978, Pope John Paul II) performed, were active there; it was the time of brilliant actors: Gustaw Holoubek and Leszek Herdegen. Most of them were very colourful personalities. The fantastic Waldemar Krygier, student of stage design, ran Teatr 38. As a students’ theatre it got all European plays for free, and the then most trendy performances were created there. At the same time, profit-based theatres had to pay for these plays, and they were broke. Quite extraordinary – it was exactly what young audiences were choosing. Sensational!
The time of political thaw was also the period of fantastic artistic upswing. When I started to take interest in theatre, I first came into contact with Russian theatres, which – surprisingly – were the most avant-garde ones back then. Theatre was bourgeois, so the Russians wanted to do a different theatre. They broke everything apart: the stage, theatre space, curtains, seats in satin and in velvet. That was exactly what the young liked. In 1956, the Cellar under the Rams (Piwnica pod Baranami) opened in Kraków. Wonderful venue with brick vaulting. Sensational! That was the essence of living. Cafes where we used to talk, laugh, smoke, drink a shot of vodka. We talked about theatre, performances, inspirations. It was a fantastic world. And I “collapsed” into it all, into that whole theatre.
At that time, I was working on my diploma. It was a design of an en ronde theatre – audiences sitting around the stage; over them, a second stage that “absorbed” the theatre. It was the kind of diploma-design of a young person, yet there was a kind of first idea for theatre space that intrigues the audience and the actors.
Back then, Grotowski was a strange character, he was very much engaged politically. He dealt with politics, and with theatre, and actually he was not quite certain what to choose to ensure himself fame and glory. At some point, he decided that it would be theatre. He finished his studies in Moscow, where he learned all the Moscow methods: Stanisławski’s, etc. Moreover, he was giving lectures. One such lecture took place in a club connected to the aforementioned Teatr 38 and – I can still remember – was entitled Erotyka starohinduska [“Old Hindu Erotica”]. I went there and he was all the time talking about theatre, and talking, and talking… but what he was saying was interesting. Besides, he was a bizarre character. He resembled for instance the first secretary of the Party: suit, tie. In this respect, he was ingenious, he kept changing his entourage all the time. Anyway, it was controversial and cool at the same time, when “Grotowski the secretary” was talking about erotica. It was then that I met him, I started talking about my theatre, about how I saw theatre. Grotowski reacted enthusiastically, encouraging me to come to Opole, where he was taking the position of the director of the Theatre of 13 Rows (Teatr 13 Rzędów) at that time.
In those times, cooperation with theatre was an absolute privilege. There were shows one could hardly get tickets to, and to work in a theatre was amazing. I'd just graduated but I did not want to work in big architectural-design studios. I immersed myself slightly into a kind of alcohol-using company but it was very cool. I thought that I would go to Opole, maybe that would do me good. And so I went. And it was such a hole! Out of fear, I went to a pub to drink some vodka. I’m at the bar, ordering a shot, looking... and there’s a rat running on the shelves. The theatre was located on the main square, I was welcomed by none other than Ludwik Flaszen and Jurek Grotowski. Grotowski as the “secretary”, Flaszen with a beard – the “prophet”... and we started talking. I told them about my fascination with rhapsodic theatre. And Grot replies to that: “well, yes, but we’re doing a different kind of theatre”. And Flaszen adds: “but look who’s saying that”. I almost felt offended then.
We started working on Siakuntala. Grot described the idea to me, then he gave me scripts that I flicked through because I was not able to read it all. There was a princess and a prince, then some quarrels… We cut from my en ronde diploma project a narrow strip, as the theatre that Grotowski had taken over turned out to be a 6-by-12 metre room, which, however, had one big advantage: it did not have an amphitheatre floor, it was flat and one could do practically everything there. We started. Audience on one side, audience on the other side, stage in the middle, landings in the back. We arranged the whole space. Grotowski had an idea to put in the middle a cylinder which would become a centre. I drew a cylinder. We mounted it on the stage, wrapping it in canvas, since Grotowski added that actors would cuddle this cylinder. Of course, it turned out that it was a bit too big and we had to shorten it. Then, Zygmunt Molik said it resembled phallic forms. So in the middle, there were phallic forms that referred to erotica. And costumes… costumes were a good idea! A painter, Wicek Maszkowski, was a friend of the theatre. He taught children in an arts school. He told his pupils about India, that people there wore turbans, etc. Kids drew how they imagined those clothes. And our costumes were exactly that – childish images of costumes. It was a magnificent performance.
Grot trained actors in a pretty ruthless manner. Life in Opole was actually not a life. Theatre was everything. Everybody waited for Grotowski to accept them to his training. And he devoted time to every actor, all movements were carefully studied. Tales, old books, some images. After the opening night, the performance awoke indignation in the Party. The church was also indignant, so there was balance. Siakuntala, however, was on a winning streak. There was a horrifying critic, Jan Alfred Szczepański (pseudonym “Jaszcz”), who panned it mercilessly, but other reviews were positive.
Siakuntala started travelling around Poland. It was very well received in Łódź. In Kraków, in Klub Plastyków, we were not able to construct a two-sided stage, so we played on a platform, like in a ring. The performance would spark heated discussions. I felt unique – like a king! I came there with a theatre everyone was talking about. One of my professors was asking me whether I “did that theatre for them”?
The Theatre of 13 Rows was the talk of the town, maybe even too noisy talk – it travelled all over Poland with some Siakuntala, was successful. It drove the Opole activists crazy. The whole Party executive mechanism was set in motion, some thought of closing down the theatre. But no tricks with Grot! He told, maybe asked all actors to join the Party and create a basic Party cell. He went to the Party executive committee and convinced the comrades that though they might have disliked the artistic part, yet they had to take into consideration that by wanting to dissolve the theatre they would also have to dissolve a basic Party cell existing in the theatre. And he won.
Then Grotowski played one more trick. The poet Władysław Broniewski was very friendly towards this avant-garde. Grotowski and Flaszen invited him over to Opole. Broniewski came, saw the performance, agreed to be taken out for vodka and... wrote an exaltation about theatre in the national press. Then we virtually “swamped”.
Grot used to hold endless conversations with Flaszen. I usually met them at the train station – a very beautiful one, by the way – in Opole. It was the only place with a bar open 24/7. We used to go there after all rehearsals and talk. The most complicated conversation was the one about Forefathers' Eve by Adam Mickiewicz, since the dramatic poem takes places in different locations, cemeteries, manors, palaces. In a 6-by-12 metre room, one could not even try to achieve any reminiscence of that.
The idea of this fantastic space that I managed to design – soft, bizarre, totally abstract – came out of despair. Not knowing what to do, I started looking at what was done in the past by Edward Craig and then by Adolphe Appia. Appia’s soft forms are everything, you can do everything out of it, it is just imagination. On one hand abstract, on the other faithfully reflecting the climate of different places. And I suggested them to Grot. It was wonderful. Each of my drawings that I presented met with his full acceptance. No discussions. Later we just cleaned it up. If there was too much of something, we simply threw it away.
The romanticism of Forefathers' Eve was powerfully extracted through bizarre lights, manner of recitation. What the text and the body bring with themselves was very romantic.
It all originated from the mental asylum. We let ourselves be carried away a bit. With Grot, we constantly talked about theatre, which actually at some point in time should be devoid of everything. In Juliusz Słowacki’s Kordian, there were scenes from a mental asylum, scenes of feeling heads. Spectators were sitting on lower levels of bunk beds, borrowed from the army. It was so beautiful! One just sat there and because of all the springs everything was creaking. Sensational! We wanted to engage the audience in the game. After initial performances, we started groping their heads. Zygmunt Molik, with a rusted bowl and a gigantic syringe, was coming close to the audience, who used to go mad. Some burst out in laughter, others reacted with fear, so after some time we gave it up. Personally, I was most impressed with the finale, when Kordian gets to the third level of the bunk bed, stretches deliriously and makes his grand, last, wonderfully expressed monologue. Grot led it skilfully: once he put Zygmunt Molik to the front, once Zbyszek Cynkutis. He was the only one in control.
Later came Akropolis, an extraordinary performance. I was in the army then. Costumes were to be prepared by Józef Szajna, but since I was not there, he started preparing the stage design as well. He dumped all of those beloved old bathtubs of his, old pipes, all the scrap metal onto the stage. And Grot writes to me saying that everything is on the stage, asking what to do next. And I valued Szajna very much and wrote back that he should keep everything and put it in the centre. And suddenly Grotowski started to like it – the idea of building that horrifying space in progress. And that was how it all started to fit in. I put the bathtub in the middle, we created a kind of case, and then took it all out. Grot used the case so that actors would squeeze themselves into it, like sardines, and close the hatch behind themselves. The voice was horrible: “They are gone and the smoke rises in spirals”. Shivers! Szajna’s costumes “squeezing” among the audience, the rags, worn-out clothes. He did it marvellously.
The performance gave even me the creeps – an old cynic, sceptic and a tad alcoholic. When I was watching the actors carry a sack resembling a human being and thrust it, I was overcome by fear.
The biggest joy for me was the work on The Constant Prince by Calderón/Słowacki. When Grot told me that it was written by a Spaniard, Calderón, I immediately thought about the corrida, and the corrida meant a bull fighting with a toreador. Simple thing, we are making a corrida! We will enclose everything, and the audience will be looking from above. So far, I’ve not been able to convince anybody else to do another project of that kind. Grot felt that the performance was really good. He did not have to be a “secretary” anymore, he could be a bit more normal.
The opening night of The Constant Prince took place in Wrocław. Grotowski got a beautiful hall in the city centre. We painted it black. He wanted Rysiek Cieślak to have a kind of small orgasm, so that he would literally explode with this sensuality of his. Naked, skinny, beautiful, muscular, all those black characters around him. The performance was extremely popular, it travelled the world. I got beautiful photos. What I liked most was when they were performing somewhere in Paris, in some huge hall, and photos were taken from above. You could see the whole constellation of spectators, sitting around, and the light at the bottom, and poor Rysiek, lying there naked.
I stayed in Opole, I had no energy anymore – and besides I felt that Grot was already heading elsewhere.